This past month, I’ve been primarily focused on finding a way to bring my congregation together during Advent. I can tell that not being able to sing communally is bringing people down, especially as the holidays come around. Our Lead Pastor chose I Believe by Mark Miller and Marcia McFee as our theme for Advent because it brings people together around the idea of the power of song even though we can’t sing together.
I spoke with church leaders and church friends, and the idea finally came up as an old idea turned new again: creating a devotional. Churches have long created group devotionals, where people all “chip in” a devotional piece and it gets stapled together and passed out during worship. I figured I could take that, “kick it up a notch” by using the tools I’m learning while publishing my book and find ways to distribute it widely and safely across geographic boundaries.
So I set out to do something different than has ever been done in my congregational setting, and I have learned a lot along the way; a few things I want to share with you so that you can learn from where I stumbled.
This is not an article that goes on about how much the church doesn’t like change. This is also not an article about learning that you shouldn’t do a group devotional. Quite the opposite! In fact, most of the members of my church “give wings to dreams,” as I mention in the preface of the devotional. People have been supportive of my wacky dreams and starry eyes. At least to my face, so I’ll take it!
What I learned is much deeper than original, knee-jerk reactions. What I learned will hopefully add to whatever you’re creating, so it is broader, deeper, and better prepared than mine was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super proud of what has been created; but here is what I wish I would have known or thought of as I was compiling this beautiful beast:
Stick With a Theme.
This is an easy one, and one that I happened to walk into. My lead pastor already had an Advent theme, so I went with it. I asked people to choose their favorite song and write a reflection and choose scripture that it reminded them of.
Give People a Length.
I struggled to communicate how long I wanted the reflections to be; the booklet was 5.5×8.5 and I was hoping that each entry would be 1-2 pages. Some entries needed a photo to get to 1 page, and some covered 3 pages. I actually struggled most with the short entries, trying to get them to fit at least a half-page for one day’s worth of devotional materials. I think giving a minimum length is something I would change for the next devotional. I wonder if word count would help with that?
Give Yourself Enough Lead Time.
I was in a car accident about two weeks before my deadline (the last day it could be put on Amazon before it wouldn’t get to people in time for Advent) and had to work way too hard to get it published. I made myself sick trying to get it done, and it would have been avoided if I gave myself more lead time. I suggest about two months lead time, maybe three depending on how many people you’re working with.
Don’t Make the Cover Yourself (Unless You’re a Designer)
I tried. I really tried. I wasted so much time trying to make a cover that looked decent, but I’m no graphic designer. Both Lulu and Amazon give you templates to use for the insides of their publications, but the cover needs to be exact based on the number of pages, and I was starting to get confused. Finally, I turned to the people who made my book cover, through Fiverr (20% off your first purchase with this link!) and used pixelstudio as my designer and got it done in 2 days.
Talk to Your Congregation About the Project.
I’m not the best congregational communicator, I’ll be honest. I get so excited about ideas I don’t talk them out enough. I don’t prepare people for new realities like publishing books to Amazon (which isn’t has hard as you think) or selling things online. Publishing to Amazon is a big deal for most people, and you need to tell people as many times as possible ahead of time. Make sure people know what you’re doing BEFORE you get ready to publish.
Get Permission from Authors to Publish Online.
Sure, authors know that you’re going to be sharing their stories. But do they understand that you’re going to be putting their work into the broader world? If you’re publishing to Amazon or Lulu, this is likely quite different than anything they’ve conceived before. People from other countries could buy it, for instance, and that’s a new perspective for people. Scary, even.
When I was asked, the day before the book went live, “Have you asked the authors what they think about their personal stories being available worldwide?” I bet my congregation on the Zoom call could almost see me do a facepalm, right there. But luckily people were quick to respond and I got all affirmatives; things very well could have gone a different way.
Frame the Devotional from a Place of Evangelism
I know evangelism can be a dirty word but hear me out. If someone is feeling lonely, and wants to share in the stories of your congregation, shouldn’t they be able to? What if those stories help them feel closer to God? That’s a powerful tool to spread the Gospel. In my church’s devotional, I was sure to put the website of our church and some of our core beliefs in the devotional, and you should do. This is a place where new people can learn about your congregation and church, from around the world. Be bold and share who you are. Try to avoid insider language where possible.
Frame the New Online Delivery System Around Group Safety
For us, it’s about not wanting to crowd the church office with people looking to pick up a devotional. Now, you can have a devotional shipped directly to your home. You can have one shipped to a friends’ home (more evangelism!) and it’s all no-contact. Group safety is worth the cost of shipping if you don’t have Amazon Prime. Please pay the extra few dollars and keep office staff safe. Or find someone with Amazon Prime, or bundle with a neighbor and have them leave it on your porch. The possibilities are myriad.
Consider Your Publisher
For me, we really had two options: Amazon KDP and Lulu. Both have Print on Demand, both offer templates, and both process shipping and handling (we didn’t want to have any inventory on hand, if we could help it). We decided on Amazon KDP because it’s what I’ve used for my book, and what I’m most familiar with. I honestly had a hard time figuring out Lulu’s website, trying to find their on-demand arm and how to use it for a project like this. Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) seemed very clear, so we stuck with that.
Consider Your Price Point
Here’s a really interesting point, that I spent a long time talking to church leadership about. You have two options when pricing your devotionals: do you charge cost (printing and shipping alone) or do you increase the price a few dollars to raise funds for something?
For a 50-page book, printing cost is going to run (for basics, color cover, black and white inside) about $2.20. Amazon charges some off the top to sell the book, and so there’s a minimum charge. You can charge that (for our devotional it was $3.58) or increase the cost.
The leadership of our church decided to go with the cheapest price possible that was still easy for our church secretary to handle (she would still have a few on hand) so we went with $5.00. They very thoughtfully chose the furthest reach over the highest proceeds, which I totally respect and love.
The second option goes something like this. Imagine if you were raising funds for something, and charged $6.00 for the devotional, or $7.00 The funds add up quickly, and you get more when it’s the Kindle version. Could be an interesting way to raise funds for charity, or for an internal project. You can keep the booklet under $10 and still raise funds. Something to keep in mind.
I hope that if you decide to move forward with a group devotional, for whatever season your group is in, that you give yourself enough time, and avoid some of the mistakes that I run into. That way, you can make your own mistakes (haha!) and hopefully bear even more fruit. Maybe it will be a fundraiser for a new project, and you will continue to earn income from it for years to come if it becomes evergreen, or you will find ways to create new content each year.
The possibilities and choices are as endless as your imagination, and I promise you’ll be impressed by what your team comes up with. I know I have been, and I highly recommend that you invest the $5.00 to see what my team came up with, as an example for whatever you may create.